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Comer surgeon drowns trying to save kids in Lake Michigan 

Dr. Donald Liu

Dr. Donald Liu

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Updated: September 7, 2012 6:16AM

He devoted his professional life to saving the lives of thousands of kids.

But one of Chicago’s most highly-regarded doctors was off duty and enjoying a weekend at the beach when he died trying to save the lives of two children Sunday morning.

Dr. Donald Liu, surgeon-in-chief and professor of surgery and pediatrics at Comer Children’s Hospital, drowned in Lake Michigan in the effort to save two boys struggling in choppy waters off Lakeside, Michigan, relatives and colleagues said.

Though the children survived the ordeal and made it safely back to the beach, the 50-year-old father-of-three was caught in a riptide that claimed his life around 10 a.m.

Liu’s widow, Dr. Dana Suskind, said they had been spending the weekend with their children Genevieve, 13, Asher, 10, and Amalie, 7, at a friend’s home in the unincorporated beach community just 10 miles along the lakefront from the Indiana state line when disaster struck.

“He was an amazing man,” she said. “We are just all in shock.”

Tributes poured in for Liu Sunday as news of his death spread among Chicago’s medical community.

“Don’s death personifies a life that was devoted to saving children,” the dean of the University of Chicago’s Medical School, Dr. Kenneth S. Polonsky, wrote in an email to colleagues Sunday.

Liu’s colleague and close friend Dr. John Cunningham, echoed that sentiment, describing Liu as “a phenomenal friend and surgeon.”

“It’s meaningful that he was taking care of children when he died,” Cunningham said.

A second-generation Chinese immigrant whose parents were both doctors, Liu retained close links to hospitals in China. He joined the University of Chicago department of surgery as a pediatric surgeon in 2001 and was made chief of pediatric surgery and surgeon-in-chief at Comer Children’s Hospital in 2007.

He was an expert in Hirschsprung’s Disease — a congenital gut disorder — an outstanding surgical oncologist, skilled at removing tumors from children’s chests and abdomens and an accomplished researcher and teacher who pioneered minimally invasive surgery in children, colleagues said. Patients across the nation and even overseas would seek him out, they added.

His many achievements saw him rated one of Chicago’s top doctors by Chicago Magazine earlier this year. He told the magazine, “Those children without hope and with diseases that can’t be taken care of at other places — they come here [to Comer]. At the end of the day, the biggest impact you can make in anything is through kids.”

Polonsky noted that Liu for all his many honors, Liu “always put his patients and their families first.”

“Words cannot express the sorrow we are all feeling at this time,” Polonsky added. “This is a devastating loss personally and professionally.”

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